Nicola Lisle looks back on her classical favourites over the year

Once again, this has been a fantastic year for classical music in Oxford, courtesy of teams such as Music at Oxford, SJE Arts, Oxford Philomusica, Oxford Lieder Festival and all the many other enthusiasts, both professional and amateur, who work tirelessly to ensure the rest of us have a constant feast of musical goodies to gorge on. To all these people, including the unsung heroes behind the scenes, a heartfelt thank you.

Much of 2013, of course, has been dominated by Benjamin Britten. This was the great composer’s 100th birthday and everybody, it seemed, wanted to come to the party.

For me, the Britten highlight of the year was Nova Opera’s stunning production of Curlew River, a hauntingly powerful chamber opera that portrays a woman’s desperate search for her lost son with poignant intensity. St John the Evangelist Church, in Iffley Road, was the perfect venue for this simply-staged but incredibly moving production, which I found utterly compelling. Now I know why people call Britten a genius.

A contrasting Britten experience was the complete Canticles performed over two nights at the Holywell Music Room as part of Oxford Lieder’s Spring Festival series. I caught the second performance, which included the Canticles Two, Four and Five, all superbly sung by tenor Dan Norman, baritone Roderick Williams and counter tenor William Towers.

But the year hasn’t all been about Britten. In May, Opera Anywhere lived up to its name by transforming the Norrington Room at Blackwell’s Bookshop into a mini-opera house to present The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. Watching Gilbert and Sullivan in this cosy intimacy was an absolute joy, and the performers made imaginative use of the space to bring these G&S classics vividly to life. Seven months later, I still walk into the Norrington Room half expecting to see pirates, policemen and gentlemen of Japan popping out from behind the bookshelves.

The Oxford Times:

Mikado

There was more G&S on the menu in July when D’Oyly Carte and Scottish Opera brought their joint production of The Pirates of Penzance to the New Theatre. This historic collaboration marked D’Oyly Carte’s first outing after a decade in cold storage, and led to hopes that a more permanent revival might be on the cards. That has yet to happen, but we shall see.

The production itself was like a bottle of the best champagne — light and sparkling, it fizzed and bubbled along merrily, and was utterly irresistible. I was lucky enough to see it twice — firstly in Manchester, where I had the great pleasure of interviewing one of my G&S heroes, comic doyen Richard Suart, and later, of course, in Oxford. If anything, it was better the second time around and I felt I could easily have sat through it a third time, and a fourth… it was strangely addictive.

Another operatic treat came later that month from Bampton Opera, who marked their 20th birthday with a typically adventurous foray into the unknown with Mozart’s La Finta Semplice, written when he was just 12. While not quite measuring up to the mature Mozart, this was nevertheless an entertaining and light-hearted romp, and it always feels delightfully decadent to be watching opera in the sumptuous surroundings of the Deanery Garden.

In June, I veered away from classical music into the world of musical theatre when Three Phantoms came to Oxford. This glorious celebration of The Phantom of the Opera and other musicals inspired by Leroux’s classic tale was another joyous occasion, presented in cabaret-style and served up with great humour and pizzazz.

There were some strong performances from the three phantoms — Earl Carpenter, Matthew Cammelle and Stephen John Davis, all of whom have sung the Phantom in the West End — but for me the outstanding performer of the night was soprano Rebecca Caine, whose sensational voice, elegance and poise made her the perfect leading lady.

There’s nothing like a bit of contrast, and the night after Three Phantoms I was at the Sheldonian Theatre for Music at Oxford’s The Dawn of the Stradivarius, held to mark the launch of the Ashmolean Museum’s Stradivarius exhibition. This was a rare jewel of a concert, with Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes showcasing different Stradivari violins from the museum’s collection as well as playing his own 1715 ‘Marsick’ violin. There were also fascinating discussions about the Stradivari violins, but it was Ehnes’ exquisite playing that made this concert such a joy.

The Oxford Lieder Festival is always a highlight for me, and this year’s event saw the welcome return of the legend that is Sir Willard White. This time he shared the stage with his wife, soprano Sylvia Kevorkian, and together they delivered a mesmerising programme of songs by Brahms, Schubert, Quilter, Liszt and Berlioz, expertly accompanied by pianist Eugene Asti.

I even turned performer myself during this year’s Festival, joining the Oxford Lieder Festival Chorus for a series of workshops and rehearsals, culminating in a concert at the Holywell Music Room. It was fun, and now I can tell people that I have sung at the Oxford Lieder Festival — wow, that sounds pretty impressive!

Think I might stick to the day job, though...

It only remains to say thank you again to all those who have given so much pleasure to Oxford’s audiences over the past year. It’s been an absolute blast — let’s do it all again in 2014!